What would the difference be to the world around us if your charity didn’t exist?

By Claire Hall

The Charity Commission’s latest charity register statistics show yet another increase in the total number of charities in England and Wales, which has grown steadily year on year since the financial crash. The total number to 30th September 2014 was 164,097 charities. That’s £64bn worth of charitable income going to good causes. But is there really the need for over 164,000 charities, and do they really have a role?

Competition in the name of effectiveness

Charities with less than £500,000 make up at least 88% (while the Charity Commission still has to account for another 9,500 charities) of that total number, but only take around 10% of the total income. Some have argued that fundraising and awareness efforts for these charities should perhaps be turned toward bigger charities. Their view being that they have the reach, the voice and the influence, whereas smaller charities’ aims have large cross over, and duplicate work. Yet many of these charities play locally and can talk to the right people because they’re close to their stakeholders (often on a personal level), and they’re small enough to take quick, effective action among those audiences.

For the remaining charities (aside from your Macmillans and your RSPCAs), it is a battle for eyes and ears. Charities in the squeezed middle - the pool of low-medium income charities that your charity most likely belongs to - need to communicate what makes them special in order to stand out from the competition. Of course, competitiveness does not always mean effectiveness, but vyng for share of services, share of mind and share of income, can ultimately sharpen up what charity is all about. When I began working in the sector, I found it hard to use the word ‘competition’ in the same sentence as ‘charity’. “Surely they all work harmoniously alongside each other! Why is there competition in a sector where there is no profit at stake?”. I learned very quickly that, in the name of effectiveness, not profit, competition is vital to the efficiency and competence of the sector as a whole.

An uncomfortable question

It’s not a new idea that the sector is crowded with charities that seemingly offer the same thing. Yet mergers are commonplace and will become more frequent, and collaboration has been key to the survival and effectiveness of many charities. But to really differentiate and cut through the sheer noise of the sector, charities need to define what makes them unique. An effective brand positioning can help a charity to claim territory, and act as the crux of all communications. It can even become a tool in service of organisational strategy.

What would the difference be to the world around us if your charity didn’t exist?

We ask this uncomfortable question in our brand positioning workshops. Awkward shuffles and embarrassed mumbles spread throughout the group when participants think they can’t name anything unique about their charity that the immediate world around them would miss. But when pushed with the use of our brand building models, they become inspired, and we can begin to help them pinpoint exactly what makes them unique in their sub-sector. It may not be a ground-breaking distinction, yet coupled with the right focus on audiences and organisational objectives, we can begin to extract and define a relevant and engaging brand positioning that will help them to carve out their space. A brand positioning doesn’t just help to compete for share, influence and income, and it doesn’t define why a charity is different or deserving. It uncovers what is already there, and then articulates it.

A brand positioning to last

A multi-faceted brand positioning is far better than something one-dimensional. A good, copy-written ‘boiler-plate’ used in place of a brand positioning might mean you have a cracking one-liner to start a conversation, but delving into the nitty-gritty of what you do is where incoherence can manifest itself. Mapping a brand positioning through seven core areas however, allows a huge amount of flexibility in how you talk about your charity. Do you need to talk about the area of activity you’re in or do you want to champion your status? Do you need to communicate your ambition to funders or do you want to engage on an emotional level with potential supporters and tell them the principles behind your actions? What exactly do you want people to say about you, and in what style do you go about your business? And what is the basis for making decisions at your organisation? A brand positioning developed in this way will last a lot longer than a catchy statement that almost engages, then unravels.

The charitable sector will always be teeming, much to the annoyance of leading voices that have expressed discontent at the size of it. But by developing a brand positioning to communicate what really counts and get across what really matters, charities will be doing themselves, the sector as a whole, and most importantly their beneficiaries, a huge favour. So now ask yourself the question. What would the difference be to the world around us if your charity didn’t exist? Do you have an answer? Is it significant? Is it communicated? You don’t need to dig too hard to find it. You just need to tease out, from internal stakeholders, what makes you special looking from the inside out, and articulate it in a way that matters to audiences looking from the outside in.